With three days to take in the very best of San Antonio, I needed to be selective. There’s so much to see and do, from the 15-mile River Walk to five beautiful missions recently bestowed with UNESCO World Heritage status.
The Mokara Hotel and Spa served as my luxurious base to explore most of San Antonio’s top sights.
The Alamo began life in 1718 as Mission San Antonio de Valero and served as a home to missionaries and their Indian converts for nearly 70 years.
The mission site was originally located a few miles away from where the Alamo now stands, relocated twice due to flooding of the San Antonio river. Construction began on the present site in 1724.
The Alamo is probably best known for the battle that took place in 1836 during the Texas Revolution. In December 1835, Texas volunteers gained control of the town of San Antonio and the Alamo.
On February 23, 1836, after a grueling winter march, General Antonio López de Santa Anna and his army arrived in San Antonio to put down the rebellion.
As Mexican forces surrounded the Alamo, Santa Anna raised a red flag indicating that no quarter would be given to the traitors inside the old mission.
Alamo commander William Barret Travis began writing desperate pleas for help, including the famous “Victory or Death” letter sent out on February 24.
For 13 days, the men of the Alamo withstood the Mexican army’s siege, but just before dawn on March 6, 1836, the Mexican army attacked. The battle lasted around 90 minutes and by sunrise all of the defenders had been killed.
Why remember the Alamo today? The Texas Revolution, of which the Battle of the Alamo was a part, led to the establishment of the independent Republic of Texas in 1836.
In 1845, Texas became the 28th state of the Union, an event that led to war with Mexico. At the close of that war in 1848, Mexico ceded the future states of New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Utah and California to the US.
This chain of events established the US as a continental power and made it possible for the nation to become the world power that it is today.
Site of a former brewery, The Pearl has been revitalized (similar to Toronto’s Distillery District) to offer boutiques, restaurants and bars, a park and plaza plus two key landmarks: the Culinary Institute of America (CIA San Antonio) and relative newcomer Hotel Emma, well worth checking out for its amazing interior and unique decor.
The hotel is named after Emma Koehler, wife of Pearl Brewery founder Otto Koehler.
Inside the lobby is an altar to Emma, amongst other curios.
I lunched at Botika, opened just three months ago by Chef Geronimo Lopez, a former Executive Chef and Instructor of Culinary Arts at CIA San Antonio. He also opened NAO: New World Flavors restaurant just around the corner.
Chef Lopez’s menu showcases both Chinese-Peruvian and Japanese-Peruvian style cuisines; the cool space includes a cocktail lounge, sushi-ceviche bar and a mix of colourful indoor and outdoor seating.
I enjoyed a range of warm and cold salads, some excellent sushi and a portion of yucca fries.
Plan to visit on a weekend morning when the Pearl Farmers Market takes place along the banks of the San Antonio River, then stay for lunch or grab a coffee at Local Coffee.
Fancy a trip south of the border without leaving San Antonio? This is the largest Mexican market in the United States outside of Mexico.
Here you’ll find restaurants, Mexican handicrafts, produce and the ultra-popular Mia Tierra, a bakery and 600-seat restaurant with mariachis and margaritas aplenty. And they never close.
San Fernando Cathedral
Stroll through San Antonio’s Main Square and you’ll be greeted with the oldest cathedral in North America. Also known as the Church of Nuestra Señora de la Candelaria y Guadalupe, San Fernando Cathedral played a role in the Battle of the Alamo when Mexican General Santa Anna hoisted a flag of no quarter from the church’s tower which marked the start of the siege.
A great reason to return here at night: San Antonio: The Saga! This colourful, 7,000-square-foot video projection by French artist Xavier de Richemont is splashed onto the cathedral’s façade, together with custom-choreographed music (in surround sound) documenting San Antonio’s history.
Shows are on Tuesdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays at 9, 9:30 and 10 pm.
San Antonio Missions
Not only are each of the five (including The Alamo) San Antonio missions treasures in and of themselves, but they’ve recently received UNESCO World Heritage status.
Mission Concepción, Mission San José, Mission San Juan and Mission Espada were established along the San Antonio River from 1720-1731 by Spanish explorers and together with the historic Espada Aqueduct form the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park.
These five represent the largest collection of Spanish colonial missions in the US. You can drive between the missions (they’re a few miles apart along a 12-mile route) or rent a bike!
Bike rentals are available in town via the city’s B-Cycle bike sharing stations along the River Walk. I noticed plenty of bike racks at the missions too.
All five missions are open to the public and are free to enter.
Rio San Antonio Cruise
Day or evening, a quick, 35-minute boat cruise along the San Antonio River Walk is a relaxing way to see the sights while learning a bit of the city’s history.
There are four ticket stations along the route.
The tours operate from 9 am to 9 pm daily and if you miss a boat, the next one’s not far behind.
Taking dining to a whole other level is Bohanan’s, a gorgeous steak and seafood restaurant started in 2002 by Executive Chef/Owner Mark Bohanan.
The cuisine is South Texas steakhouse inspired by fine French dining. I enter through the downstairs bar, packed on a Saturday night, before heading up to the beautifully appointed upstairs dining room and coveted, special-occasion Houston Room overlooking lively Houston Street.
It is here that I’m sharing a meal with Bohanan’s bar manager Jordan Corney who outlines the restaurant’s history as we peruse the wine, cocktails and dinner menus.
Cocktail lovers will be happy to learn that San Antonio is well known on the cocktail circuit, thanks to Mark having flown New York’s former premier mixologist Sasha Petraske (of Milk & Honey fame) to San Antonio as a regular consultant to bring the restaurant’s cocktail team up to par.
Mark (with the help of Sasha) launched the annual San Antonio Cocktail Conference, now in its fifth year. 100% of all proceeds from the conference goes towards helping children’s charities through his Houston Street Charities organization.
Moments later, a 45-day, 24-oz. bone-in New York dry-aged strip steak and Akashi Texas Wagyu beef are just two of several cuts presented on a large silver platter at the table next door. Though I’m more a seafood lover, it’s still an impressive sight.
Three times a week, Chicago-based meat purveyor Allen Brothers ships the highest grade USDA prime to the restaurant – these cuts are in the top three percent of all graded American beef.
I take note of where my seared sashimi 1++ grade Hawaiian Bigeye Ahi tuna’s coming from: Honolulu Fish Company, a distributor of fresh, premium, sashimi-grade Pacific fish.
Chef Mark’s tortilla soup is a winner, containing pulled mesquite-grilled chicken, avocado, cilantro, tortilla strips and Monterey Jack cheese.
The crowning moment comes with my artfully presented entree of macadamia-encrusted fresh Gulf Red Snapper filet in a candied orange butter sauce.
The entire fish is coated with nuts and the sauce is divine, an experience made even more flavourful with a bottle of 2012 C. Donatiello Russian River Valley Pinot Noir chosen by sommelier Fabian Jacob. This very knowledgeable Frenchman is kept busy researching and stocking a rotating wine collection numbering 700 labels.
Leaving room for dessert meant savouring a slice of four-layer carrot cake with Texas pecans and cinnamon cream cheese. And if out-of-this-world carrot cake doesn’t do it for you, consider a thin apple crispy tart or Valrhona double chocolate brownie, just a couple more selections from the decadent dessert offerings.
Bohanan’s is located at 219 East Houston Street.
Iron Cactus is one of many restaurants to occupy a prime River Walk location. With most of the riverside restaurants getting busy around happy hour, it’s hard to choose which one will be the winner. I was happy to have wound up here on my second night in Tex Mex heaven.
I started off with a strawberry margarita and looked through the menu, finding smoked brisket enchiladas in chocolate chipotle sauce just the ticket. Entrees come with a choice of three kinds of beans and two kinds of rice.
I’d already been brought a big basket of fresh tortilla chips with two amazingly tasty salsas (one warm and smoky, the other at room temperature and somewhat spicy) before placing my order.
The meal was tasty, without being too greasy or salty. I’d gladly return if I had more days in town. When it comes down to San Antonio Tex Mex cuisine, I really believe they’ve got the real deal. And if you’re into tequila, their Agave Room Bar has over 100 to choose from, something to ponder when tomorrow’s happy hour begins.
Find Iron Cactus at 200 River Walk. There are three additional Iron Cactus locations: two in Austin and one in Dallas.
For more information on Texas and to order a free copy of the Texas Travel Guide and Official Travel Map, visit TravelTexas.com